Certain Songs #1266: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Cortez The Killer (St. Paul 10-15-1978)”

Album: Live Rust
Year: 1979

Recorded at St Paul Civic Center on October 15, 1978

Tim and I saw the film of Rust Never Sleeps for the first time at some point during senior year. It was playing as a double bill with Rock n Roll High School. We think it was out at the Moon-Glo Drive-In, I’m pretty sure that there was at least a six-pack of beer involved, and I’m absolutely certain that one of the highlights was the epic version of “Cortez The Killer.”

Whereas the original studio version of “Cortez The Killer” on Zuma always felt like a sketch, almost a demo, especially when compared to the versions that were put on the Live Rust (from St. Paul) album and Rust Never Sleeps film (from San Francisco).

On the studio version, it’s just Young singing by himself, but for these live versions, there were backing vocals, Crazy Horse tossing harmonies on lines “the women all were beautiful” and “ahhhhhhs” throughout, while Neil sings about an entire civilization on the unknowing brink of extinction.

He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
With the secrets of the worlds
And his subjects
Gathered around him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see

I’m not gonna lie: “he came dancing across the water” is beautiful and brutal in its depiction of white man conquistador arrogance, and it’s of course contrasted with creating a depiction of the Aztec civilization as a paradise where their benevolent leader got wired on coke and was totally tied into the life force.

And the thing, of course, is that “Cortez The Killer” is so spooky and ominous that you almost believe every word he’s singing, even though you know he’s exaggerating.

And his subjects
Gathered around him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see
And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood
Straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on

And of course, because this is Neil Young, there is still some darkness in paradise. Unless you think that ritual sacrifice to appease your angry gods is a good thing. Or forcing people to build pyramids. But then again with all of that arcing, skyrocketing guitar between the verses, you might not pay attention, because every single guitar solo in “Cortez The Killer” is a master class in showing how walking down the hill instead of running often yields greater results.

Because of the things about “Cortez The Killer” is that it is extremely slow: it takes time to conquer an entire civilization, and with Ralph Molina continually sabotaging any kind of momentum with his drum fills, “Cortez The Killer” saunters like a conquistador surveying his newly conquered territory.

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones
They carried them
To the flat lands
And they died along the way
But they built up
With their bare hands
What we still can’t do today
And I know she’s living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can’t remember when
Or how I lost my way

In the end, “Cortez The Killer” jumps space and time, and inserts Neil himself into the song for . . . reasons. Neil himself didn’t know. When asked about the autobiographical element in his songs, he of course, played down any biographical elements in any of his song by referring to this one:

What the fuck am I doing writing about Aztecs in “Cortez the Killer” like I was there, wandering around? ‘Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta shit I just made up because it came to me.

And in fact, he slyly acknowledges this at the end of the Live Rust version by singing “he came dancing across the water, mon” in a faux-reggae accent while Crazy Horse does their approximation of reggae. No, not really. While Crazy Horse does join in with with the backing vocals, they continue to play the song like Crazy Horse. Meaning like nobody else could possibly play it.

And a lot of people have: Both The Church and Matthew Sweet covered it, and because it lends itself to long jams, so have a whole bunch of jam bands. Built to Spill tossed out a 20 minute version on their live album, and near the end of their run, it was a go-to set closer for my close personal friends The Miss Alans, though we never attempted it in Sedan Delivery, for some reason.

And of course, Neil recognized that it was an audience favorite — as well as an ideal setting for long, probing guitar excursions — and never stopped playing it. In fact, my guess is that, along with “Like a Hurricane” it’s the Neil Young song that Neil Young & Crazy Horse fans most want to see him shred on.

“Cortez The Killer” from Live Rust (St. Paul 1978)

“Cortez The Killer” from Rust Never Sleeps (San Francisco, 1978)

“Cortez The Killer” from Zuma

“Cortez The Killer” live in London 1976

“Cortez The Killer live in San Francisco 1986

“Cortez The Killer” from Weld, 1991

Cortez The Killer live in Rio, 2001

“Cortez The Killer” live in Fresno, 2018

Every Certain Song Ever
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.

Check it out!

Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)

Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page

Comments are closed.